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With $1 million Premera grant, Hope House plans new women’s shelter

UPDATED: Mon., March 12, 2018, 10:53 a.m.

Fawn Schott. President & CEO of Volunteers of America, right, stands with Michelle McIntosh, a housing resource specialist at Hope House in one of the building's cramped bedrooms on Friday, March 9, 2018, at Hope House in Spokane, Wash. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
Fawn Schott. President & CEO of Volunteers of America, right, stands with Michelle McIntosh, a housing resource specialist at Hope House in one of the building's cramped bedrooms on Friday, March 9, 2018, at Hope House in Spokane, Wash. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

Hope House used to have a living room, and offices for its staff.

But the women’s shelter is so full these days that the couch and fish tank that once decorated the main room are gone. In their place, another set of bunk beds is pushed against the wall. Staff work out of a handful of tiny, windowless rooms.

“We literally kicked staff out of every room with a window,” said Jon Carollo, development director for Volunteers of America, which runs the shelter.

Those rooms now house more beds, and still, the shelter has to turn people away.

“We were full every night last year,” said Heather Thomas-Taylor, assistant director of the shelter. In total, they turned away 2,211 women seeking shelter for a night in 2017.

But a change is in the works, thanks to a $1 million grant from Premera, the Washington-based health insurer. The capital will allow VOA to build a new women’s shelter with 120 beds, tripling its capacity.

“Homelessness is a health issue,” said Tom Messick, the vice president and general manager of operations for Premera in Spokane, announcing the grant.

Hope House is one of the recipients of a total of $40 million in funding the company is giving away through its social impact program, thanks to rebates it’s receiving through the recently passed tax law.

“It’s exciting to see that Premera wants to make this investment in our community,” said Mayor David Condon. He attributed their investment to the work Spokane has done to develop a comprehensive plan toward ending cyclical homelessness through investing in supportive housing and establishing a network of 24/7 shelters to serve single adults, families and teens who are homeless.

In total, Premera Blue Cross, which serves Washington and Alaska, plans to invest $250 million over the next five years to stabilize individual health insurance markets, improve coverage in rural areas and hold down premium increases, the company announced Monday.

Not-for-profit Blue Cross Blue Shield organizations began paying taxes under the Tax Reform Act of 1986 and were taxed using the corporate alternative minimum tax. The 2017 tax bill repealed that tax and allows companies like Premera to claim a refundable credit for taxes already paid until 2022.

Premera anticipates receiving $390 million over four years starting in 2019 as a result, spokesman Bo Jungmayer said.

The insurer started its social impact program about a year ago and has funded other initiatives in Spokane, including Rising Strong, a Catholic Charities program to help parents struggling with drug addiction so they can keep custody of their children while receiving treatment.

Paul Hollie, who runs the impact program, said the overall focus is on improving behavioral health services, which includes addressing addiction and housing.

“If you don’t have stability in your housing, stability in your shelter, it makes it more difficult to maintain physical health,” Hollie said.

The tax refund is providing additional funding above the roughly $3 million per year Premera had committed to the program, he said.

At VOA, staff are a mix of excited and incredulous. Michelle McIntosh, a housing specialist at the shelter who’s a formerly homeless client, said she only got where she is today because people at Hope House believed in her.

She was able to kick a drug habit, got an apartment for formerly homeless people and eventually moved into her own place. She worked at the shelter overnight while getting an associate degree in social services and took the housing job when it opened up.

“Somebody gave me hope that I would have something better in my life,” she said.

Thanks to her work, Hope House housed 109 women last year. She said a larger shelter in combination with more permanent supportive housing will give homeless women more options for a safe place to stay.

“There should be no requirement for someone to get shelter,” she said.

Fawn Schott, VOA’s area president and CEO, said the funding will be the start of a capital campaign for the new shelter, which will cost about $2.5 million.

“The fact that we have to turn away 10 to 15 (women) every night … is a tragedy for our community,” she said.

The plan is to build 50 low-barrier apartments to house formerly homeless people in a building above the new shelter. That construction will be funded through tax credits.

Condon said the city hasn’t yet allocated funding to specific programs serving homeless and formerly homeless people for 2019, but VOA will be able to apply for funds to help support the new project.

Schott said they’re hoping to open the new shelter in October 2020.